by Steven Nelson | March 28, 2019
Catherine Toney began February in prison and ended the month with a job at Walmart after White House adviser Jared Kushner called the Arkansas-based retailer on her behalf.
Toney, 55, is believed to be the first woman freed by the FIRST STEP Act, which President Trump signed in December. She was released Feb. 1 after serving 16 years, benefiting from the law's retroactive crack cocaine sentence reductions.
Toney will join Trump on Monday for an event celebrating the criminal justice reform law, his first major bipartisan policy achievement. Other recently released inmates were invited to attend.
Toney met Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and an architect of the reform law, on Feb. 21 when she attended a White House Black History Month event.
Kushner asked about Toney's plans, and she said she wanted to work at the Walmart in Daphne, Ala. He volunteered to call Walmart for her, according to Toney and two others in the room.
"He promised me he was going to do it," Toney said. One day later, she got a call from a woman named Becky at Walmart's corporate office, saying that Kushner had called, and that the company wanted to help.
"I went to the White House, but I came home to nothing, not anything at all. By him calling corporate himself, he made sure I got in this Walmart where I asked," Toney said. "He was a man of his word and he did what he said he would."
The Walmart liaison, Becky, has called to check in about twice a week, Toney said.
"She had someone from Walmart meet me at Starbucks to do the application. In prison, I had no clue how to properly work a computer," Toney said. "I'm at Walmart doing orientation today. [Kushner] made that possible."
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but a Walmart representative confirmed that Kushner personally called. The representative said Toney met the standards for employment, and that the company wanted to help other former prisoners.
Jessica Jackson, national director of the prison reform group #cut50, said Toney is part of a bigger-picture effort by Kushner to enlist businesses to hire formerly incarcerated people, including by helping reduce re-entry barriers, such as poor Internet literacy.
"Catherine is a test case" for the retail giant, said Jackson, whose group offered Toney a temporary contract job, before she landed the Walmart position, to help her buy a car.
Also attending the Monday celebration is April Johnson, 40, who was freed from prison in January under a compassionate release provision to care for her daughter, who is suffering from terminal cancer, and for her daughter's two sons.
"I would like to thank [Trump] for putting the new law in effect," she said.
Powell, now working at a lumber company, served nearly 16 years of a crack cocaine sentence and was freed under the same retroactive provision as Toney. In prison, Powell said there's some surprise at Trump's role.
"When the election was going, no one was looking forward to Trump being in there," Powell said. "People thought the Democrats were going to change the laws and get them out of prison, but then it was the Republicans and Trump who changed the laws."
Powell notes, however, that the FIRST STEP Act reduces certain future prison sentences, including limiting gun sentencing enhancements, without retroactively reducing the same sentences for those now in prison. Another section of the law expanding "good time" credit to give near-immediate release to about 4,000 people, a provision meant to apply retroactively, has been stalled due to a drafting error.
Amy Povah, the founder of the CAN-DO Foundation, said that despite criticism, the FIRST STEP Act "has actually exceeded some expectations," particularly with compassionate releases for elderly or ailing inmates. Still, Povah advocates for Trump to supplement the law with more grants of clemency to prisoners.
Monday's events at the White House will feature a "strategy session" on how to move forward on reforms, a workforce re-entry event with Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, and an afternoon celebration with Trump.
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